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Swiss revisit rules of war

The status of prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay has fuelled debate over humanitarian law

(Keystone Archive)

Switzerland is to convene an international conference aimed at updating the Geneva Conventions to take account of terrorism.

But the depositary state of the conventions has made it clear that the principles of international humanitarian law are not open to negotiation.

Swiss authorities said that the conference - set for January 27 - would examine the application of the Conventions in a new age of modern warfare.

"Reaffirming the principles does not mean we are going to reform them," said Peter Maurer of the Swiss foreign ministry.

Maurer was responding to reports in the international media that Switzerland was seeking to "reconsider" the Geneva Conventions.

"We are not at all happy with that particular turn of phrase," he said.

International discussions

Switzerland has charged Harvard University's Programme on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research with the task of examining whether there is "some deficiency in the Conventions" in the light of September 11 and the war against terrorism in Afghanistan.

Officials have called the meeting in January to discuss whether international humanitarian law takes into account all types of modern military conflict, as well as the status of prisoners of war and the protection of civilian populations.

Some observers question whether the conventions - written in 1864 on the instigation of the founder of the Red Cross, Henri Dunant - adequately reflect the situation on the ground during times of modern warfare.

Setting an agenda

"The agenda is not yet fixed, and Switzerland alone is not going to determine the issues for discussion," said Claude Bruderlein, director of the Programme on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research.

Seventeen countries have been invited to take part in discussions, while a consultation group has been established to set the final agenda for the January meeting.

Swiss foreign ministry officials have refused to confirm which countries will attend the meeting, but the "New York Times" reported on Monday that a US official would attend.

The Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which is charged with overseeing the application of the Conventions, is pressing for a leading role at the negotiating table.

"We would like to reinforce and not dilute the principles of international humanitarian law," said ICRC spokeswoman, Kim Gordon-Bates.

US position

Close attention is likely to be paid to the American position, particularly in the light of Washington's refusal to join the new International Criminal Court and the debate surrounding the detention of Afghan combatants held by the US at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

In the wake of September 11 and the US-declared war on terrorism, some analysts believe Washington will denounce international humanitarian law as null and void, while others suggest the US may seek to redefine the terms of the conventions.

"Certain signals coming from the Bush administration indicate a desire to reinforce the protection of prisoners of war. But there are also signs that indicate a tendency towards redefining certain categories of prisoners," said Bruderlein.

The ICRC denies it has come under any pressure from the United States to reform the conventions.

Gordon-Bates agrees with the Swiss government that it is the application of humanitarian law - and not the conventions themselves - that is up for discussion.

"If everybody went around stealing and the law prohibited it, that is not a reason in itself to change the legislation," he explained.

swissinfo, Marc-André Miserez, translated by Samantha Tonkin

In brief

Switzerland is to convene an international conference aimed at updating the Geneva Conventions to take account of modern warfare.
The meeting, which will be attended by represenatives of 17 countries, is scheduled for January 27.
The Geneva-based ICRC says it wants to see a reinforcement of the principles of international humanitarian law.

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